The Anatomy of Wellbeing

Convergences in Positive Psychology

What is the value of living an examined life? Why sit and engage in introspection on a cushion, or take ayahuasca in a south american rainforest?

One of the distinguishing properties of living organisms is the mandate to continue existing. A mandate to maintain themselves in a narrow set of attractor states. This basic homeostatic imperative, the ability to respond to the volatilities of the environment, has been previously used to formally define that which we consider to be alive from that which we do not. Aside: the free energy principle is one mathematical formalism that describes this tendency, it argues that any “system” that can be considered alive must be situated within a narrow set of states for that system to be recognised as distinct to its environment. Here the mandate is the minimisation of long term surprisal, i.e. minimise the likelihood of finding oneself in states that are surprising with respect to where one expects to be. i.e. to fight entropy!

The more complex an organism is, the more difficult this imperative is to enact - the more easily such an organism finds itself vulnerable to the grasp of entropy. Just as the unsuspecting rock decays on a desert plain, so too does the human body when this homeostatic mandate has vacated itself.

For the vast majority of organisms in our 3.9 billion year evolutionary pedigree, this imperative was enacted through simple and automatic stimulus-response or fixed action patterns of behaviour. These behaviours were vital for navigating a world that was constantly changing. Consider the 4 billion year old primordial soup from which we descended. The humble single cellular microbes that called this soup their home were acutely at risk to the effects of UV radiation from the rising sun. The simple autonomic tendency of these microbes to flee downward in the presence of light is what rendered their ability to survive when others did not.

It is only in the sunset of this evolutionary history, that we began to see complex nervous systems giving rise to elaborate but still largely autonomic behaviours. Diffusely spread networks of nerves such as those found in jellyfish, followed by the development of neuron clusters called ganglia. And finally, the very first of the centralised nervous systems - nascent organisms such as the humble flatworm, with their primitive brains. Yet such creatures still lacked the nuances of behaviour we observe in mammalia or the aves - nuances such as visual self-recognition and future planning.

It is arguably the development of a self-model - of a concept of self - that was critical for enabling future-planning or long term forecasting. It is difficult to engage in future-planning and prediction, without modelling one’s own future behaviours, i.e modelling one’s self.

The arisal of self is unique in that it is intimately connected to psychological affect, mood and emotions, indeed we likely need a self-model to experience emotions in any meaningful way. This is an almost tautological fact; for emotions to be felt, “I” must feel them. While it is possible to imagine a world in which emotions may exist without a self-model, it is difficult to imagine why or how they would be instantiated.

By first hand accounts of most long term meditators the sense of self is experienced as a kind of near constant interjection within our stream of attention. An interjection that forces us to situate most of our experiences in the context of what this means for ourselves. Consider the feeling of sitting on a park bench, as some stranger walks vaguely in your direction, it is the interjection of the self that turns a benign sensory imprint of a stranger into one where the stranger is walking towards you, even if they aren’t. It is also likely the interjection of self that gives us the feeling of agency over action, over thoughts, perhaps explaining why many long-term meditators also believe in the illusory nature of free will.

The most widely accepted theory of perception posits the brain as engaged in predictive modelling. Doing so by building a heirarchical model of the world, and attempting to predict away what the organism is observing, finetuning its model in the process. This basic idea of this is quite old, but was probably most prominently explored by the excellent work of Rajesh Rao and Dana Ballard in 1999, who named it predictive coding and showed that this schema was neurobiologically plausible. Recent work has taken and extended this further to incorporate behaviour as well as just perception The basic currency of such predictive models is that of the “concept”: any abstract representation that is meaningful for prediction, such as the concept of a car, a tree, or the colour red. Placing the self in this framework is easy, it is simply another concept. And just as the concept of a car may confer with the colour red to produce the felt perception of a red car, so too may the concept of a self confer with other concepts to give rise to the felt experience of being an entity that is seperate from the world.

It is when attention remains fixated or consumed by this “self concept” - a type of heightened ego-centricity - that we see the various clinical or routine pathologies of mood. From the garden variety insecurities and anxieties that plague us all, to the debilitating extremes of emotion. The narratives that underpin these changes all revolve around the self, and tend to be about one’s position in the world. From the subtle: “I’m too unproductive”, “I’ll make a fool of myself” to the less subtle: “I’m worthless”, “Nobody likes me” - the classic and familiar targets of cognitive behavioural therapy.

Insofar that one can claim any one particular goal for the introspective traditions of the east, this is likely it: to recognise the self as a concept like any other. For some traditions, this goal is explicit: to recognise the illusory nature of self, for others, it is merely to pay attention to experience in such a way that loosens the stranglehold of self-hood on one’s attention.

When one looks at the seminal works of positive psychology, we also find a pleasant convergence to the same ideas. “Flow” for example, is the state of losing oneself in a task, and characterised by “intense concentration, loss of self-awareness, …, and a sense that time is flying. Introduced by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1975, one of the founding fathers of positive psychology, Csikszentmihalyi suggested that individual’s were happiest when spending time in “flow”. Also finding that individuals with particular personality traits, such as “low self-centeredness”, found it easier to remain in flow.

It is tempting to think that 45 years ago, Csikszentmihalyi was glimpsing at the very ideas suggested by the eastern philosophers before him, and now being understood by the researchers of today.

And here you might begin to see connections with the burgeoning field of psychedelic therapy. For example, a landmark study published only this week pitted psilocybin (the primary psychedelic component of magic mushrooms) against the anti-depressant escitalopram in a double-blind randomized control trial. See here for this landmark study, and here for the author’s thoughts on the results Earlier papers by the same authors, posited a plausible neurobiological account for the psychedelic mechanism of action: by inducing a type of relaxation and malleability to high-level beliefs. Positing that the pathology of long-term low-mood or anxiety may be one result of the “canalisation” of maladaptive high level beliefs about one’s self. See here

Consider this in stark contrast to the mind of a child, which is well known to exist in a more entropic brain state than the average adult. This is part of a more broader entropic view of the brain and consciousness which can be reviewed here To borrow the analogy of journalist Michael Pollan: if the human mind is a snowglobe, for a child, this snowglobe is in constant flux. High level beliefs come and go, and the paths they dig out leave scarcely a mark before they are erased under the fresh layers of tomorrow. This enables children to more effectively explore their models of the world, preventing them from getting stuck in a local optima too early.

It is as we age, and this process anneals, that we are left with at least some maladaptive or dogmatic beliefs that are seemingly resistant to change. Children too are not entirely impervious to this phenomena, consider the strongly observed association between childhood trauma and downstream physical and mental health outcomes. It is easy to envision how the canalisation of maladaptive beliefs can occur even for a child in the presence of extremely heightened emotions, such as those experienced during severe trauma.

It is clear that if there there is convergence to any one idea in the striving for better wellbeing, it is in the unravelling of these tightly wound spools of belief centering around one’s self.